A new citywide education commission will soon start assigning A-F grades to every school in Detroit — the first time in years that schools in the city will get letter grades from a government entity.

The grades could, in theory, be used by the state or other authorities to make painful decisions about schools, including possible closures. They could also create problems for schools if Ds or Fs demoralize parents or make it harder for schools to recruit students and teachers.

But the city and school leaders designing the new system say they’ve structured the grades to give schools lots of credit for the work they’re doing to help students improve. 

That means grades won’t simply brand schools as failing because their students are behind. And, unlike some grading systems in other states, they won’t end up largely measuring the economic backgrounds of students.

“This is a system that is created by Detroiters for Detroit schools that is fair and consistent,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who is designing the system along with officials from charter schools, the state education department, and other members of the new citywide Community Education Commission.

“I know that this change will bring some resistance,” Vitti said. “But that resistance is centered and rooted in fear because these systems have been used inappropriately to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that in some way our schools don’t work for kids.”

The proposed grading system, which commission members plan to roll out for the first time at a public meeting on Thursday evening, won’t do that, said John Barker, the school accountability expert who is working with the commission to develop the system. (Scroll down to see details).

“We built it around the notion that everybody can grow,” Barker said. “Not to diminish the importance of proficiency … but all children can learn and by extension, all schools can improve.”

The commission, whose 11 members were appointed last spring by Mayor Mike Duggan, took on the task of grading schools in response to a state law passed in 2016 that requires every school in Detroit — and only Detroit — to get A-F grades based on test scores, graduation rates, and other factors like attendance.

Lawmakers had included the provision in a package of legislation that sent $617 million to Detroit to create the new Detroit Public Schools Community District, which was largely freed from the debts of the old Detroit Public Schools. Their reasoning was that if lawmakers were going to approve so much money to Detroit, they wanted an accountability system to make sure the money was spent well.

Many of the lawmakers behind the bill are calling for an A-F grading system that would apply to all Michigan schools, so a statewide proposal could eventually replace the one now being rolled out for Detroit.

But until that happens, Detroiters can demonstrate a model for grading that the state can consider, said Ralph Bland, a who leads the New Paradigm for Education charter network and serves on the committee that is designing the grades.

“Even if at the end of the day, the state says ‘Hey we’re not going to use what Detroit developed,’ I think it’s a good starting point to give the state an idea of some different metrics,” Bland said.

Once commission members vote on the draft proposal, likely by the end of the year, it will go to the state education department for approval. If approved by the state, the first round of grades are expected to come out in October of next year and will be based on what happens in schools during the current school year.

Detroit will then join at least 15 cities and states across the country that use letter grades to evaluate schools. Michigan briefly used a grading system about a decade ago.

Barker, the school accountability expert, says what sets Detroit’s system apart is its focus on student improvement.

While there lots of different ways that states calculate grades, Barker said most state grading systems give significant weight to overall student performance on state exams, meaning the percentage of students who demonstrate that they are doing math and reading at grade level.

Focusing on student performance is problematic when used in high-poverty cities like Detroit, Barker said, because test scores are highly correlated with income. Students from more affluent families typically score higher than their peers who come from poor families. So schools that enroll high numbers of children living in poverty — meaning nearly every school in Detroit — are not likely to get a very good grade.

When the defunct Excellent Schools Detroit organization graded Detroit schools, the vast majority of the 212 schools graded got Ds or Fs in a recent year, while only 21 schools got a C+ or better.

That grading system based 40 percent of a school’s grade on test score performance.

This new system would base just 24 percent of a school’s grade on test score performance.

Another 20 percent would be based on non-academic factors such as the percent of students who are chronically absent and the percent of students who re-enroll in a school from one year to the next.

More than half of the grade — 56 percent — would be based on what’s known as student “growth,” the percentage of students in a school who improved a grade level during an academic year.

That means that if a fifth-grader starts the year reading at a second-grade level and is able to come up to a third-grade level by the end of the year, his school will get credit for helping him achieve a year of growth, even though he’s still two years behind.

Bland, from the New Paradigm charter network, said this is what will make this grading system useful to parents.

“Proficiency does matter because we want students to get to that point of proficiency,” Bland said. “But when you look at the landscape in Detroit and the amount of improvement that needs to be done on both sides of the fence with the district and charters schools, we need a good fair starting point.”

The emphasis on growth is especially crucial in Detroit where a third of elementary school students change schools every year. That means many students who sit down to take the state’s M-STEP exam every year are students who could have arrived that year already several grade levels behind.

Vitti said he’s fine with being judged on how well his schools help a student learn once he arrives.

“There is no reason why we can’t hold ourselves accountable,” Vitti said. “We should, morally, hold ourselves accountable to a year’s growth in reading and a year’s growth in math … If we can’t do that, then what in the world are we waking up every day to do? And why are we collecting a paycheck?”

Vitti notes that the system will exclude the scores of students who are chronically absent so schools won’t be held accountable for students who miss class on more than 10 percent of school days in a year. He said he will use the grades to help figure out how schools are doing and where he needs to send additional resources. He said he would never fire a principal just based on a school’s grade and said he hopes the state won’t use the grades to make closure decisions.

He noted, however, that if a school gets three Fs in a row, that’s a problem.

“We shouldn’t have schools that are F three years in a row,” he said. “That’s not right.”

Vitti, who spent most of his career in Florida, which was the first state in the nation to adopt letter grades, said he appreciated being able to help design the Detroit system, but noted the commission did not have carte blanche to design what members might otherwise consider an ideal system. The state law that mandates letter grades spelled out much of the framework for this grading system, including a requirement that at least 24 percent of a school’s grade be based on student performance.

Vitt said he knows that some educators and parents won’t be thrilled to see the work in schools reduced to a single grade, especially because years of low performance make it unlikely that the first few years will produce many As.

“There’s a legitimate fear that everything will become about the letter grade,” Vitti said. “But we’re fooling ourselves if we think parents don’t already make decisions based on perceptions about a school … So why not create a fair way to evaluate schools?”  

Bland said he looked at how the six schools in his network would have fared on this grading system if it were applied to the last school year and some schools would have done quite well. Of others, he said, “there’s always room for improvement.”

Still, he said he thought parents and educators would ultimately welcome the grades.

“If we’re looking at how to get momentum behind all schools and how to get change to happen,” he said, “then definitely making schools more accountable is the way to do it.”

Here’s how the proposed new system would calculate a school’s grade:

K-8 schools

Metric Weight
Proficiency 24%
     Students scoring at grade level on M-STEP English test 4%
     Students scoring at grade level on M-STEP math test 4%
     Students scoring at grade level on M-STEP social studies test 3%
     Students scoring at grade level on M-STEP science test 3%
     “Continuously enrolled” students* who score at grade level on English M-STEP 5%
     “Continuously enrolled” who score at grade level on math M-STEP 5%
Growth** 54%
     Students who advance one grade level in English 10%
     Students who advance one grade level in math 10%
     “Continuously enrolled” students who advance one grade level in English 12%
     “Continuously enrolled” students who advance one grade level in math 12%
     Students whose test score rank them in the bottom 30% at their school who advance one grade level in English 6%
     Students whose test score rank them in the bottom 30% at their school who advance one grade level in English 6%
Non academic factors 15%
     Students who re-enroll from one year to the next 4%
     Students who are chronically absent 6%
     Parents who participated in a school satisfaction survey 5%

*Continously enrolled is defined as attending a school for two full school years

**Schools will have a number of options for exams used to measure growth in their schools. They can use a growth measure from the state education department that compares student improvement in one school to their peers across the state. Or they can use a state-approved exam such as the NWEA MAP test or the iReady test that many schools are already using to keep tabs on student progress.


High Schools

Metric Weight
Proficiency 24%
     4-year graduation rate 6%
     Students who earn passing score on the SAT reading and writing exam 5%
     Students who earn a passing score on the SAT math exam 5%
     Students who earn a passing score on the social studies M-STEP 2%
     Students who earn a passing score on the science M-STEP 2%
     Students who are enrolled in college- and career-level courses including Advanced Placement, Dual Enrollment, and courses that can lead to a career certificate 2%
     Students who pass college- and career-level courses including Advanced Placement, Dual Enrollment, and courses that can lead to a career certificate 2%
Growth** 56%
     Growth in graduation rate 10%
     Students who showed improvement between the PSAT in 10th grade and SAT in the 11th grade on the reading and writing portion of the exams 10%
     Students who showed improvement between the PSAT in 10th grade and SAT in the 11th grade on the math portion of the exams 10%
     “Continuously enrolled” students who advance one grade level in math 12%
     Growth in percentage of students enrolled in college- and career-level courses 13%
     Growth in percentage of students passing college- and career-level courses 13%
Non academic factors 20%
     Results of student surveys on school safety, climate, etc 5%
     Students who re-enroll from one year to the next 4%
     Students who are chronically absent 6%
     Parents who participated in a school satisfaction survey 5%

*Continuously enrolled is defined as attending a school for two full school years

**Schools will have a number of options for exams used to measure growth in their schools. They can use a growth measure from the state education department that compares student improvement in one school to their peers across the state. Or they can use a state-approved exam such as the NWEA MAP test or the iReady test that many schools are already using to keep tabs on student progress.